What do you like to do after a murderously tough leg day? Most humans, if they do it right, like to curl up into a ball with a protein shake and call their mommies. But after one such workout, Joel Stubbs, the world’s biggest bodybuilder, decided that he wanted to go play hoops. And it almost cost him his career.
Turns out, this cartoonishly wide physical specimen is good for more than just heavy rows. In high school, he was a soccer midfielder, a basketball forward and an accomplished 400-meter hurdler — all positions that require the kind of agility not normally associated with big men. His senior year, the spry, 6´3˝ Stubbs took third on the track in the Bahamian High School championships and the next year, he played basketball at the college level for Florida Technical College. But while many bodybuilders opt to leave their athletic backgrounds behind for good in order to avoid injury (and sometimes embarrassment), Joel still moonlighted with a basketball team early in his career.
“It was 1997,” recalls Joel. “I’d played a little college basketball. I had a lot of wear and tear on the knees from all that vigorous training. I used to have a lot of pain when I would run the floor hard. After that I came back home and played a bit of night league basketball where government agencies, like the airline, get together and play ball.”
Joel, then an airline pilot for Bahamasair — he now splits time as a stand-by pilot and flight simulator instructor — had started bodybuilding the year prior. He’d found the act of refining his physique came naturally and had already started to add some of that now-famous mass. Unfortunately, his dedication to the iron would prove disastrous on the hardwood.
“That particular night, I had trained legs,” he says. “After all that heavy squatting and leg pressing, I told my workout partner that I was going to play ball and he told me to go home, eat and rest myself. But I felt good so I went anyway. In the second half, some guy had a breakaway and I ran at him to go block him and as I rose I felt this pain in my right kneecap. He fell on me and put too much pressure on my left knee, tearing my left patellar tendon.”
Men from both teams rushed to try to help Joel to his feet but he waved them off. Reaching down to palpate his tender knees, he felt flesh where bone should have been. Both tendons had snapped below the knee, sending his patellas shooting up into his lower thighs.
Joel underwent surgery and months of physical therapy to repair the catastrophic and unspeakably painful damage to his knees. Most would be lucky to return to any type of athletic activity but Joel had designs on finishing what he’d started. He eventually returned to bodybuilding and was able to earn a pro card in 2003 by winning the Central American and Caribbean Championships.
Today, most judges see his legs as the weakest link in an otherwise otherworldly physique. That hardly seems a fair assessment, considering that eye-pleasing leg mass is an elusive trait for any tall man onstage. And with that kind of trauma on record, it’s a wonder his legs have swelled to their current, meaty proportions and are only overshadowed by his staggering back development.
“I can squat any kind of crazy amount of weight like any other bodybuilder or strongmen,” Joel says. “But when I try leg extensions, which put more stress directly on the patellar tendon, I start to really feel them. I can do the leg press without any pain because the glutes and hams are driving most of the weight anyway. Weight-wise, I’ve been able to squat five plates per side for 10 reps. But now, as I get older, the joints over the years have sustained a bit of beating and banging so now the most I do is around 405 and I’ll stay in the Smith machine most of the time to make things more safe.”
Obviously comfortable with navigating comebacks, Joel took some time off earlier this year to allow his body to recuperate from years of continuous training and show prep. This month, as he prepares for his return to competition at the 2011 IFBB Pro Masters Championships in Miami, Joel finds himself training with renewed purpose – injury free.
“I feel good,” he says. “I think honestly getting the rest really helped my right shoulder injury and I had a little tendonitis going on in both elbows and this healed a bit of that. Now I don’t feel hardly any pain. I think I had injured some of the tissue in the front right deltoid, maybe by pressing too heavy back in the day. One or two times in the past, I got some cortisone shots to continue training but the time off is what has really made a difference.”
Joel started his bodybuilding career as a raw, potential-laden amateur at age 29. He turned pro at 36, years after sustaining what would’ve been a career-ending injury for most athletes. Now, at 43, the man with the widest lats in the room – any room – is contemplating what’s next.
“The goal is to compete and qualify for the Olympia again and have some fun with the guys on the stage there and try to fight my way into the top 10,” he says. “I’d like to win a pro contest. I want to push it as far as I can go with it and see how the body responds with how I’m getting back. But I’m planning on making 2012 my final year in professional bodybuilding.”
Though he sees himself as walking in the twilight of his career, Joel has no intention of heading down the white, sandy beaches of his native Bahamas into obscurity. He plans on remaining a fixture on the scene, helping younger bodybuilders hone their skills and keeping connected with the fans who’ve helped him live out a dream.
There are certainly some intriguing facts and anecdotes about the early career of Joel Stubbs that helped shape the kind of bodybuilder that he’s become. But watching him train now — all 300-something pounds of him — with the hunger and enthusiasm of a rookie on the rise, you get the feeling that 2012 could be the storyline that everyone remembers most.